Posted in Journals, Writing, Writing craft

5 tips to make better use of your journals and notebooks

You have journals, right? Writers have journals.

The authors of an interesting article in The Guardian newspaper in 2018 about the inner workings of writers’ journals said this: “Note-taking is not just a method for remembering. It is a way a writer tells himself, or herself, a story―and this becomes a process of life, a mode of being.”[1]

But this story-to-self is unpublishable. And that’s where we begin.

Your notebooks and journals serve several purposes, but one of them is NOT to be published. Ever. They are for your eyes only. That’s the beauty of them. They are probably also the only time you write long-hand these days. I know a few writers write without a computer, but that’s not who I’m talking to here. I believe that a writer needs a pen-and-paper journal or two (or three).

I have five tips to help you make better use of your notebooks and journals. (Skip to the bottom to see me talk about these tips).

1 – Choose your writing instrument carefully.

Your pen (or pencil if you prefer) should glide across the paper. If it doesn’t, you won’t write as much or as often. There should be no scratching at all.

2 – Use it every day.

I mean it. Every day. Without fail. (well, almost veery day) Write something. Try Natalie Goldberg’s approach from her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones for writing practice. Start with “I remember…” and keep your hand moving for 10 minutes.

3 – Turn it into your artistic ritual.

Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit (which I’ve mentioner before) has a wonderful section on artist’s rituals. For example, composer Igor Stravinsky had to sit at his piano and play a Bach fugue every morning before he began work. Julia Cameron, author of the now-classic The Artist’s Way, talks about “morning pages” for writers: a ritual that gets the creative mind in the mood. Make your daily journal writing your own personal ritual.  

4 – Have more than one.

This is my approach. I have one for gathering snippets. One for each project I’m working on or thinking about. A “big-idea” book. I reach for one or the other several times of day as I sit at my computer when I see, hear or think of ideas don’t belong in that particular manuscript.

5 – Regularly review your journals to mine them for inspiration.

Your jotted notes that capture your thoughts and observations are a treasure trove of ideas. Think of them as a treasure chest you can open whenever you want, whenever you’re suffering from writer’s block, whenever you’re looking for new ideas. Remember that you were impressed enough by the thought to write it down. Why did it impress you? Go back and figure it out.

Is your notebook a diary? It can be, but for most writers, it doesn’t seem to be. Use it to try things and remember things. But just never publish it. And remember, it is the one piece of writing you’ll do that is unhackable!


[1]

‘Messy attics of the mind’: what’s inside a writer’s notebook? https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/06/tales-masters-notebooks-stories-henry-james

Posted in Writing, Writing craft

5 tips for writers to make better use of their blogs

You have a blog, don’t you? If you don’t, you might consider starting one―but probably not for the reasons you think.

I can’t remember what I was thinking when I started this writing blog in 2011―ten years ago. My writing life was at a different point then, and the objectives I had at the time no longer make sense. Yet, I continue to write. I took a hiatus for a while when my career and life didn’t give me much extra time, but I always come back to it. I use it for lots of things, although lately, I seem to be focusing on giving writing advice. This focus is merely an evolution reflecting both me and my career.

My first blog post was called A book’s backstory…or a writer’s backstory? And this is, of course, the reason why this blog is called Backstory. In that post, I considered whether I’d focus on my own backstory (a slice of the writer’s life kind of thing) or my books’ backstories (my process and plans). In the end, I didn’t have to make a decision. It simply evolved. And you don’t have to make a decision either. You just need to blog.

There’s a tendency for writers to feel one of two ways about a blog. Either they think a blog is simply a tool for selling books, or they think it’s a waste of time. I believe that it is neither and that there are good reasons for you to consider blogging.  Chief among them is that a blog is a space where you can build your reputation as a writer while connecting with readers through a feedback loop. Lots of great ideas come from readers, you know.

Consider spending five minutes watching the video linked below for my details on the tips.

  1. I suggest that you begin with an objective or two. Even if you’ve been blogging for a while, are you really sure why you’re doing it? Are you sure about what you’re trying to accomplish? This is where you begin. Then it can evolve.
  2. Consider using your blog for writing practice. We all need to practice our writing, and not all our writing belongs in long-form material.
  3. Use your blog to write about interesting finds from your research that didn’t make it into a book or article. You might even find, through writing, this becomes the basis for a new piece.
  4. Conduct an annual review of your blog. This is something I should have done from the beginning. I do it now. I answer a couple of questions: Am I still focused on my objectives, or have I steered off into another territory? Is that where I really want to be?
  5. Do not turn your blog into a selling tool. Like your website in general, avoid, at all costs, the temptation to use your blog to bludgeon readers with a sales pitch for your books. Of course, you can mention your books. After all, that’s why many of your blog readers are following you. But don’t’ short-change them by promoting your books in every blog post.

Obviously, there’s a downside to blogging: it takes time. However, I think this is time well spent if your blog is focused and stays on point. You need to write something every day, and it doesn’t have to be on a major project. Perhaps your blog is a way for you to get in that writing, even between projects. Keep in mind that a blog can also be a good way to grow your audience, but it will be time better spent if you focus on what it can do for your writing rather than your sales.

Oh, and make sure it’s well-written and looks professional.

Posted in Writing, Writing craft

Online Research: 5 tips for improving your skills

Every writer needs to do research at some point. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a blogger, a nonfiction magazine or book writer, a short story writer, an online content creator or a novelist―sooner or later, you’ll have to do some research. Sometimes, it might only be research to find an agent, publisher or online platform for your work. Whatever the reason, we can all improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our research skills as our writing careers progress. And in the twenty-first century, you’ll probably do most of it online.

When my first nonfiction book was published over thirty years ago, online research was nonexistent. I had to do my research in the library, spending hours in indices to find the right citations followed by more hours combing through books, articles, and microfiche readers. Unfamiliar with microfiche? Oh, what you have missed.

Depending on what you write, you have to do more or less research. And that research these days is often (probably mostly) online.

If you write any kind of nonfiction, unless you’re writing stream-of-consciousness my-new-idea-is-genius-and-doesn’t-need-any-support, you need to do a lot of research. Or perhaps you write fantasy and are creating your own worlds. You could do it without any research, but you’d be short-changing yourself. (Which colours work best with orange hair and purple skin? You get the idea.)

If you write contemporary fiction, you might think you don’t need to do any content research. What about ideas for character names, car models (what year did they start making the VW Beetle, for example), or the weather in a particular city at a specific time of year?

And if you write any content for the online world, you need excellent online research skills.

Sometimes the research isn’t for the pieces you’re writing. Often it’s for all those other activities that writers are required to do just to have a writing career. I’m talking about finding publishers, agents and online publishing platforms. All of those require you to do research. So, as far as I’m concerned, writers need to consider how and why they do online research.

I have come up with five tips that might help you to improve your skills.

As I move forward in any piece of writing, I find myself doing upfront research before I begin, but I also find myself researching on the fly if you like. I don’t always know that I’ll need to know what kind of camera was popular in the mid-1960s when I start writing.